Study Guide

Cymbeline, King of Britain Society and Class

By William Shakespeare

Society and Class

IMOGEN
O, blessèd, that I might not! I chose an eagle
And did avoid a puttock.
CYMBELINE
Thou took'st a beggar, wouldst have made my throne
A seat for baseness. (1.1.167-170)

Cymbeline hates the idea of Posthumus—a beggar, in his mind—marrying a princess. He doesn't care about love or happiness; all he wants is social hierarchy to be normal in his kingdom. That's one tall order, considering that his daughter has already married Posthumus.

QUEEN
When thou shalt bring me word she loves my son,
I'll tell thee on the instant thou art then
As great as is thy master; greater, for
His fortunes all lie speechless, and his name
Is at last gasp. (1.5.58-62)

It seems high social class can be handed out like candy on Halloween... according to the Queen, that is. She says she can make Cornelius high and mighty if he delivers a potion to her. It's funny that the Queen has this kind of thing her in power: she's also trying to kill people off in order to get her son on the throne. Is that kind of thing legit?

CLOTEN
Every jack-slave hath his bellyful of
fighting, and I must go up and down like a cock
that nobody can match. (2.1.21-23)

Cloten thinks he's awesome just because he's a prince, but everyone else knows he's a tool. In fact, the lords even make fun of what he says here. A cock is a slang term for a fool, which means that Cloten's calling himself a fool without even realizing it. It's another example of lack of self-awareness that will eventually prove Cloten's undoing.

IMOGEN
His mean'st garment
That ever hath but clipped his body is dearer
In my respect than all the hairs above thee,
Were they all made such men. (2.3.152-155)

Ouch. Imogen thinks that even Posthumus's old clothes are better than Cloten. For someone who buys into the whole class structure (and Cloten totally does), that's a big deal, especially considering that Imogen has drawn attention to clothing, one major symbol of social status. Imogen is saying that Cloten isn't even as good as a lower-class person's old clothes; she's saying the other guy's status is actually better.

CLOTEN
I'll be revenged! 'His mean'st garment'? Well. (2.3.180)

Cloten just can't get over this one: he's been insulted before, but not like this. How dare Imogen call him worthless? He's so offended he repeats this line from Imogen three times before saying this. Is this the first time anyone told it to him straight? Probably.

CLOTEN
Therein I
must play the workman. I dare speak it to myself,
for it is not vainglory for a man and his glass to
confer in his own chamber. I mean, the lines of my
body are as well drawn as his, no less young, more
strong; not beneath him in fortunes, beyond him
in the advantage of the time, above him in birth,
alike conversant in general services, and more remarkable
in single oppositions. Yet this imperceiverant
thing loves him in my despite. (4.1.6-15)

Dressed as Posthumus, Cloten compares himself to his dreaded rival. He makes it easy for us to see that class doesn't really matter, though we should point out he's actually saying the opposite—that he's way better than his love rival. But, in doing so, we hear how similar the two men are in stature, strength, and skill. It's just their outward trappings—clothes as well as social status—that seem to differentiate them. (What's actually different about them is what's on the inside: Posthumus is a good guy, while Cloten is just a nasty piece of work.)

GUIDERIUS
I am sorry for 't, not seeming
So worthy as thy birth. (4.2.123-124)

Without even realizing it, Guiderius hits a nerve with Cloten: he's said that Cloten is unworthy of being called a prince. In typical fashion, Cloten can't let this go—in fact, it's what gets him killed. If only he hadn't cared so much about his social status.

BELARIUS
Though mean and mighty,
Rotting together, have one dust, yet reverence,
That angel of the world, doth make distinction
Of place 'tween high and low. Our foe was princely, 
And though you took his life, as being our foe,
Yet bury him as a prince. (4.2.313-318)

Belarius offers us the typical view in Shakespeare's day: social class matters, big time. He thinks that even though Cloten was their enemy, he still deserves to have a burial according to his class: he was a prince, so he should be buried like one. Do you think Belarius's views have anything to do with the fact that he used to be a high-class man himself?

GUIDERIUS
Thersites' body is as good as Ajax'
When neither are alive. (4.2.321-322)

Everyone is equal—when dead. Guiderius doesn't care that Cloten was a prince or anyone special. It doesn't matter, he says: we all go back into the ground, one way or another. His comparison between a lowlife soldier (Thersites) and a hero (Ajax) in the Trojan war shows that death doesn't distinguish between beggar and king.

CYMBELINE
Stand by my side, you whom the gods have made
Preservers of my throne. Woe is my heart
That the poor soldier that so richly fought,
Whose rags shamed gilded arms, whose naked breast
Stepped before larges of proof, cannot be found (5.5.1-5)

We've come full circle by the end of the play: Cymbeline is now thankful to a peasant (Posthumus) for saving the throne. Isn't it funny how the fate of the kingdom was in the hands of a bunch of poor guys? Of course, we know Guiderius and Arviragus are actually princes (as is Posthumus, if you think about it), but Cymbeline doesn't know that. In the end, inner worth seems to triumph over social class.